Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 8 – Fences

Fences is a drama directed by Denzel Washington, with a screenplay by the late August Wilson, which he adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. The film, which is set in a black working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, follows Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a waste collector living with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) during a time of racial tension. Throughout the film, Troy and his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) set up shop in the Maxson’s backyard to drink gin and talk about life, including discussions about race, women, and whether or not Troy will ever finish building his fence.

The late August Wilson’s Fences is considered one of the greatest plays of all time, but Wilson has transformed that award-winning story into one of the most emotionally affecting films of 2016, with a screenplay that he penned prior to his 2005 death. With the help of Denzel Washington’s brilliant filmmaking—and Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s exquisite photography—Fences gets a picturesque silver-screen treatment. This superb script explores thought-provoking themes of race, death, love, revenge, and family, and Wilson’s rapid-fire dialogue makes for an exciting ride for the audience. Over the course of his career, August Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes and one Tony, so it is only right that his final contribution to the arts resulted in a much-deserved posthumous Academy Award nomination.

As I mentioned earlier, this film is incredibly affecting on an emotional level, and it is not just because of August Wilson’s beautiful script—what truly carries Fences is the remarkable acting. However, it is no surprise that the chemistry between the performers was spot-on and effortless—five of the actors took part in the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprised their roles as Troy and Rose Maxson, for which they both won Tony Awards in 2010. Further, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, and Russell Hornsby all returned in their roles as Bono, Gabriel Maxson, and Lyons Maxson, respectively. Needless to say, these skilled actors had already spent years with their characters, which allowed for the most immaculate portrayals that an audience could have hoped to see.

Speaking of the acting performances, the hype that Denzel and Viola Davis are receiving is completely justified—just as their on-screen characters are constantly battling, these two celebrated actors fight each other for ownership of every single scene they appear in. The Best Actor category is an incredibly tight race between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington, and although I preferred Affleck’s performance, I would have zero problem with Washington taking home his third Oscar—his performance is as commanding as any I’ve ever seen. As for Davis, well, her epic snot-pouring scene in the film has surely locked up the Best Supporting Actress category. One of my favorite performances, though, was that of Williamson as Troy’s disabled brother Gabriel, which was quite underrated. Fences featured a few moments that cued the water works, and many of those came courtesy of Williamson’s emotionally invested portrayal of Gabriel. Fences is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.

Fences trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj-ZYPVRQbc

Academy Award nominations for Fences:

Best Picture (Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington, and Todd Black)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Denzel Washington)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Viola Davis)

Best Adapted Screenplay (August Wilson)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

9. Zootopia

10. Nocturnal Animals

The Fifth Annual “Countdown to the Oscars” and 2016’s Honorable Mentions

For the fifth consecutive year, welcome back to The Reel Countdown, my annual “Countdown to the Oscars” blog, which now, for the first time ever, officially has its own domain name: http://www.thereelcountdown.com. In just 14 days, the 89th Academy Awards will be broadcasted live from the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California, and over the next two weeks, I look forward to sharing with you my favorite films from 2016.

For the past few years, this blog has included a breakdown of my “Top 15 Films of the Year,” as well as my own personal Oscars ballot for the year’s major categories. However, starting this year, the countdown of my favorite films of the year will be reduced to a “Top 10”—life has gotten much busier since last year!

After a fantastic year of film in 2016, the lead up to the Academy Awards has produced a number of interesting storylines: La La Land tied All About Eve and Titanic for the most nominations by a single film (14!), the Academy nominated one of the most diverse group of nominees ever, Meryl Streep extended her own record for most nominations by a single actor to 20, Mel Gibson was effectively forgiven by Hollywood after notching a Best Director nomination, and O.J.: Made in America became the longest film to ever be nominated in any category (467 minutes). With late-night funnyman Jimmy Kimmel set to host for the first time, this year’s Oscars will surely entertain on all levels.

I am kicking off my fifth annual countdown by announcing the five films that just missed out on making my list of the Top 10 Films of 2016. Here are my five Honorable Mentions:

No. 11 – 13th

13th is a Netflix original documentary by director Ava DuVernay that explores race, the criminal justice system, and the social consequences of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In 13th, DuVernay examines how the drafters of the 13th Amendment, while ending slavery in its more traditional form, left themselves an “out” to continue enslaving blacks in America via imprisonment for shockingly inconsequential charges.

To put it simply, 13th is one of the year’s most important films. Not only is it important on a broad humanistic level, it is also as relevant as ever given Donald Trump’s extensive racially unconscious and divisive rhetoric (which director Ava DuVernay portrays in one particularly unflinching scene). Growing up and living in a vastly conservative region of the United States (where it is completely normal to see someone proudly flying the Rebel flag), I have seen firsthand how a wide range of people consider blacks to generally be “criminals,” and DuVernay, with meticulousness and dexterity, examines the roots of this unfounded terror and dehumanization. Exploring D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the “Jim Crow” laws, President Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” and President Clinton’s “Three Strikes” rule, DuVernay delineates how America has fostered a prejudice for those of color. Everything 13th investigates has clearly been done so with exhaustive, in-depth research, and DuVernay has created one of the year’s most thought-provoking films. Bravo!

No. 12 – Gleason

Gleason is a documentary that follows, with extraordinary access, the life of former New Orleans Saints hero Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed in 2011 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). This film tells the inspirational story of Gleason’s fight against this rare and incurable disease, delving deep into his relationship with his wife, the birth of his son at the beginning of his diagnosis, and his faith.

Gleason is definitely one of the year’s best films (documentary or narrative), and I advise anyone that subscribes to Amazon Prime to make it a priority to watch it. But I will warn you now: PREPARE FOR TEARS! The filmmakers explore Gleason’s diagnosis from every angle and do not sugarcoat anything—they show you the fight and determination of Gleason’s family as they react to the initial diagnosis, but they also examine the real and undeniable daily struggles that come with ALS. This film definitely hits the heart in astonishing ways, but despite the pain and sadness that embody the nature of Steve Gleason’s disease, the story of inspiration and hope reigns supreme.

No. 13 – Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a biographical drama directed by Theodore Melfi, with a screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. The film tells the true-life story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three black female mathematicians working for NASA during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Hidden Figures follows the three women as they break a wide range of racial barriers in the early 1960s, including Johnson’s integral role in calculating flight trajectories for John Glenn’s infamous Friendship 7 mission, where he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Hidden Figures is heartwarming and relevant as ever—not only does it tackle the severe racial tensions of the 1960s, but it also digs into the even more challenging life of a black female during the middle part of the 20th century. The film introduces the world to three extraordinary women who helped shape America’s role in space exploration, and it inspirationally communicates to all girls, especially young black females, that they are just as worthy as their male counterparts in all aspects of life. Hidden Figures is an empowering film, and it is just what America needed during this tumultuous time in our history.

No. 14 – Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is a war drama directed by Oscar winner Mel Gibson, with a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. The film tells the amazing true-life story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a combat medic during World War II who, as a devout Christian, refused to carry and/or use a weapon. During the Battle of Okinawa, Doss single handedly rescued over 75 American soldiers at Hacksaw Ridge, earning him the Medal of Honor—this was the first time the highest military honor had ever been bestowed upon a conscientious objector.

Over the past decade, Hollywood has unofficially blacklisted Mel Gibson following the anti-Semitic comments he made during a DUI arrest in 2006, which has been evidenced by the big studios’ blatant cold shoulder. However, with Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson has returned to the level of filmmaking genius that earned him numerous Oscars for Braveheart—clearly, the Academy took notice, bestowing upon Gibson another Best Director nomination. In addition to Gibson’s direction, Andrew Garfield gives one of the year’s best performances as Desmond Doss—Garfield provided poise and nuance to his real-life character, and the film benefits from his talent. Although the film is far too preachy for my tastes, the incredible action sequences make it well worth the watch.

No. 15 – Green Room

Green Room is a thriller written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. The film follows the Ain’t Rights, a punk rock band traveling through the Pacific Northwest who, in desperate need of cash, agree to play a gig at a neo-Nazi skinhead club. After the concert, band member Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) returns to the green room to retrieve a cell phone, only to witness a recently committed murder. When Pat and his band members attempt to alert the police, the club’s brass, at the direction of ringleader Darcy (Patrick Stewart), lock the Ain’t Rights in the club’s green room. In thrilling fashion, the rest of the film follows the group’s attempts to make it out alive.

The first time I came across the work of Jeremy Saulnier was in 2014 when I watched his masterpiece of a film, Blue Ruin. Although Green Room does not achieve the same degree of amazement as his previous film, Saulnier has returned to the same well to craft an exhilarating adventure that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Green Room is harrowing and sadistic in its depiction of the dark side of the punk rock scene as it relates to the skinhead subculture; however, Saulnier constructs this horror with composed skill. Led by exceptional performances from the late Anton Yelchin and Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself (Patrick Stewart), Green Room is a wild and crazy adventure that is a must-see!

My Review of the 88th Academy Awards

Well, that’s a wrap on the 88th edition of the Academy Awards. More so than any year previously, the show began with a giant elephant in the room. Deciding to stick with his plans to host, comedian Chris Rock was expected to bring the heat with regards to the serious diversity issue surrounding Hollywood’s biggest night—for better or for worse, he definitely came to play. This year’s Oscars, like most years, had some tremendous moments, some not-so-tremendous moments, and some downright unforgettable moments, and I am pleased to share my reactions to all of the major highlights from the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony:

Chris Rock and the Diversity Issue:

We all knew it was coming from the moment Chris Rock stepped on stage. With the #OscarsSoWhite campaign grilling the Academy’s every move, diversity was always going to be a central topic of the night. Chris Rock, a comedian who has never shied away from racially themed rhetoric, was the catalyst Hollywood so desperately needed to address these issues on Oscar night. Oscars3As far as Rock’s opening monologue, I thought he killed it. While most hosts focus on all of the movies and performances from the year, Rock instead spent his entire opening speech discussing the diversity issues in mainstream cinema. The best part about his monologue was that it was equal parts spoof and sincerity. He hilariously addressed the fact that Jada Pinkett-Smith of all people was the lead protestor of this year’s ceremony due to the lack of diversity in acting categories (although her main beef was obviously that husband Will Smith was “snubbed”). Rock remarked, “Jada is going to boycott the Oscars. Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”

In this day and age, race is a particularly hot topic, and although most modern racism is not exactly as it once was (see the 1960s), it absolutely still exists nationwide, even if not so blatant. Rock made light of this fact as well: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it ain’t that racist that you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.’”

Comedian Chris Rock hosts the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood

Chris Rock made the debate funny, while still inserting kernels of truth. He ultimately ended his monologue on a serious note, making a poignant statement that I absolutely agree with in regards to this diversity debate in cinema: “What I’m trying to say is, you know, it’s not about boycotting anything. It’s just, we want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.” In his opening monologue, Chris Rock hit the nail on the head!

Best Moment: (Leo takes home the gold)

Was there really anything better than watching one of the greatest actors in the history of film hear his name called for the very first time at the Oscars? No, people…the answer is “no.” Leonardo DiCaprio has furnished movie-lovers everywhere with an endless supply of quality acting performances in some outstanding films, yet, the 41-year-old actor had never won an Oscar, despite being previously nominated four times in acting categories. UNTIL THIS YEAR! Oscars6As I have mentioned more than once on my blog this year, Leo’s win was never going to be a lifetime achievement award. This was never going to be a “make-up call” for snubbing him multiple times in the past. This year, if Leo won, it was always going to be because his performance in The Revenant was raw, unrelenting, and downright incredible. When Julianne Moore announced Leo as the winner for Best Actor, the crowd stood and cheered loudly—partly because everyone knew this was way past due, but also partly because each and every person in that crowd knew that this year, nobody was better! It was one of the coolest moments in my lifetime of watching the Oscars. Congrats, Leo!

The REAL MVP: (The dude/gal who knew better than to “play off” Leo during his speech)

We have waited decades for Leo to finally take home his first Oscar. And when he finally got on stage to accept his much-deserved award, he gave a speech that clearly appeared as if it would last a good while. I sat on my couch with bated breath, waiting for the orchestra to start playing Leo off. But I waited…and waited…and waited. And the music never came! THANK THE LORD!!!Oscars8 If I would have been at the show, and the orchestra started to play Leo off, I might have throat-punched the conductor (or whichever producer gave the conductor the cue to start the music). Fans of Leo’s career have waited a long time to see him up on that stage, and whoever was in charge of deciding whether or not to play Leo off—you the REAL MVP for saying, “NO!”

Most Boring Moment: (The dreaded length of the ceremony)

This show has got to get shorter. For the fourth straight year, the ceremony lasted over 3 ½ hours (this year’s length was 3 hours, 37 minutes). This year, the Academy instituted a new feature: All winners had already recorded a list of people that they would like to thank, which scrolled across the bottom of the screen like a Sportscenter ticker. Despite this new element, the show still plodded on and on. One of the main things to blame, in my opinion, for the show’s length is the excessive commercial breaks. The NFL can get away with so many cuts to commercial because when the game returns, its hard-hitting action keeps us occupied—the Academy Awards, on the other hand, does not pack that kind of punch. Oscars4When it came down to the final four awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director), the show took 2 commercial breaks. Best Director was announced right after a commercial break, and then—you guessed it—the show took another commercial break. When the ceremony returned, Best Actress was revealed. Then, yep, another commercial break. It was already almost 11pm (CST) at that point, and yet, the show stumbled to the finish line. Something has to be done about the length of the Oscars. Although I love the Academy Awards, I totally get where people are coming from when they complain about its boring nature. Here’s to hoping something changes next year.

Most Surprising Moment: (Mark Rylance defeats Sly Stallone for Best Supporting Actor)

Oscars5

No, Spotlight winning Best Picture is not the most surprising moment of the night—although I disagreed with the Academy’s decision in that category, it was not completely out of left field. This year was one of the tightest Best Picture races in history, as there was never a clear-cut favorite—in fact, The Revenant, The Big Short, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Spotlight all garnered “Best Picture” wins at variously renowned awards ceremonies this year. The biggest surprise for me was Mark Rylance winning Best Supporting Actor, a category that most viewed as a complete lock for Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. Leading up the Oscars, Stallone’s odds were 2/7 to win the big award, although, to be fair, Rylance was always his biggest competition (his odds were 5/2). Although I did enjoy Rylance’s performance in Bridge of Spies, I was completely caught off guard because the hype has long indicated that Stallone would be a shoe-in for the win.

Hottest Dress: (Rachel McAdams)

Oscars9Look, I am a movie guy—I am not at all a style critic. But let’s be honest, Rachel McAdams looked smokin’ in that green dress last night. The 37-year-old Canadian actress was definitely one of the best dressed from Oscar night, and her gown even had my wife crushing on how “hot” she looked! Let’s all take a minute to bask in the beauty of one of Hollywood’s most stunning stars!